Thursday, 1 August 2013


About a million years ago, the entire plain surrounding Orvieto was higher than it is today, covered in a volcanic layer of porous tufa.  Over innumerable millennia, the Paglia and Tiber rivers washed most of this away, except the few square kilometres that today makes up the city of Orvieto.  Orvieto rises above its surrounding plain by 1000 feet, or around 300 metres.  Throughout the ages, because of its geographical uniqueness, it has been used as a fortress.  The Etruscans were the first to move in here.  

Because the tufa beneath Orvieto is porous, it is easier to dig into.  Those first to move in knew the importance of catching water for self-sufficiency.  Because of the porousness below the surface, a large body of water was deposited naturally further below ground.  This has been tapped into by the people who have lived here, but water has also been collected in man-made cisterns.  About three caves are open to the public.  Jean and I went into two this afternoon on our English language guided tour.  But there is a total of 1200 caves, tunnels, cisterns, quarries, and underground basements that are known.  Given that it takes only about a half an hour to walk from one end of Orvieto to the other, it's fair to say Orvieto is sitting on a honeycomb.

The cave tour was interesting.  We went into the ground, into man-made cave 'rooms', and saw where olive oil was produced a few centuries ago.  Also wine has been produced.  In the quarries, tufa building blocks were mined as well as pozzolano to use in cement production.   We also saw where people raised pigeons inside the caves between the 14th and 18th centuries.  It was strange.  The caves were underground, cool, darkish, and electronically lit up, yet they were hundreds of feet above the surrounding plain.

We had a quick look inside the Duomo, a dramatic cathedral-like church seemingly too elaborate for humble Orvieto, but then this city has been a favourite of a large number of Popes, starting with, I believe, Pope Clement VII.  Jean and I theorised that if you go down inside the Duomo's crypt, there is probably a secret trap door beneath an obscure table in the corner.  The trap door probably leads to a tunnel, which stretches all the way to the Vatican.  Who know what secrets are hidden under Orvieto.  Jean thought there could be UFOs down there.  One fifth of the surface up here is used exclusively by the Italian military, and it is suspected they have access to the best tunnels.  So there you are.  Secrets are beneath our feet as we speak.   

We climbed the Torre, the highest point in Orvieto, to appreciate the view of the city.  Funny, from here you couldn't really appreciate the dramatic drop to the surrounding plain.

Plazza de Republica
Inside the caves: the production of olive oil
Coops for the raising of pigeons
The Duomo
The Duomo from atop the Torre
Orvieto with surrounding plain
Part of Orvieto with countryside behind
The drop from Orvieto to the surrounding plain
Orvieto has many little lanes

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